Kaine's legacy: Agenda deflated, but popularity high

Virginians went to the polls Tuesday for an off-year election with races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and the state House of Delegates, and they handed the Republicans their first governor's race win since 1997 and first House gains since 2001.
By Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Faced with a record budget shortfall and uncooperative Republican lawmakers, Timothy M. Kaine's legacy as Virginia governor has largely been built on his political gains: helping his party win a pair of U.S. Senate seats, taking control of the state Senate and delivering the Old Dominion for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in more than four decades.

But the Republican Party's sweep of statewide offices and possible gains in the House of Delegates on Tuesday night leave Kaine with a somewhat deflated political record and without a successor to complete his policy agenda.

"Elections do matter, and many of the issues he cares about are no longer going to be on the front burner," said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. "It puts dead in their tracks many of the initiatives he has not been able to move forward."

Aside from further cementing his place in Virginia history, Kaine was under pressure as chairman of the Democratic National Committee to help a Democrat win his home state and give President Obama a political boost.

He steered more than $6 million of DNC money and other resources to Sen. R. Creigh Deeds's campaign for governor, sent out letters and recorded radio ads on his behalf, and hit the campaign trail with him. He spent far more time working in Virginia than in New Jersey, where Democrats also faced a critical gubernatorial test. (Gov. Jon S. Corzine was defeated by Republican Chris Christie.)

Some national Democrats have complained that Kaine has kept a low profile on the national stage and hasn't raised enough money for the party. But state and national party members don't expect Virginia's electoral losses to cost Kaine his job, although failing to win his own state will raise questions about his ability to be an effective chairman.

"I think the loss does not reflect any kind of movement or any dissatisfaction with the president . . . or Tim Kaine," said Mame Reiley, a DNC member and political consultant who worked for Kaine.

Kaine remains a relatively popular figure in the state -- a recent Washington Post poll showed him with a 60 percent approval rating -- despite his failure to fulfill many of his campaign promises.

Unlike his predecessor, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, Kaine was unable to persuade Republicans in the House of Delegates to support his most ambitious policy goals: resolving the state's transportation problems, funding pre-kindergarten programs statewide and raising teacher salaries to the national average.

In an interview at the close of his final legislative session this year, he said he found other ways to deliver, including imposing a statewide ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, setting aside millions of dollars to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and preserving nearly 400,000 acres of open space -- an area the size of Virginia's Eastern Shore.

"There are things I wanted to do that I will not get done, and then there are things I have gotten done that I would have never imagined in my wildest dreams," Kaine said at the time.

Kaine will probably be remembered as a personable and unflappable administrator, a quiet promoter of Northern Virginia's increasingly liberal take on social issues and a calming presence after the Virginia Tech shootings, when he flew home from a trade mission in Japan to console a grieving state. He later signed into law the first significant overhaul of the mental-health system in 30 years.

Republicans were quick to say that Kaine's legacy was in tatters after Tuesday's election. "It's all gone,'' said Del. Timothy D. Hugo (Fairfax), a frequent critic. "Tim Kaine, unfortunately for Virginia, has become the ultimate partisan."

Some Democrats said Kaine's image would be tarnished by Deeds's loss, in part because it hands Republicans an opportunity to reshape the public view of his years in office. Any troubles Robert F. McDonnell encounters as governor will be laid at Kaine's feet.

"His legacy will now be open to a lens that I think is blurred -- the Republican lens," said Democratic strategist Steve Jarding, who helped elect Warner governor in 2001 and James Webb senator in 2006. "They will define Kaine and have the bully pulpit to do it. They'll be controlling all the reins of government. If the public doesn't like it, they'll say, 'That's not us, that was Tim Kaine.' "

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